Film Review: John Rabe

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Berlinale Special
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BERLIN -- Germans don't have many feel-good movie stories about World War II, so the world premiere of "John Rabe" at the Berlinale is certainly cause for local celebration. Even though he was a member of the Nazi Party, John Rabe was, as the German title of his published diaries suggests, "The Good German of Nanking." The middle-aged, balding Rabe is his country's Oskar Schindler, a man who could not abandon his conscience.

In following that conscience and helping to bring thousands of Chinese civilians into a sprawling International Safety Zone during the rape of Nanking by the Japanese army in 1937, the German businessman saved many lives. Estimates go as high as 250,000.

Despite publication of those diaries in the U.K. and U.S., the historical incident doesn't register much outside of Germany, so the film, which will open here in April, may get relegated to specialty venues elsewhere.

That Americans know about Nanking at all is perhaps due to "Nanking," the powerful documentary directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman unveiled at Sundance two years ago. Rabe is certainly one of its heroes, a leading figure in the movement by a small group of foreign expatriates to bring Chinese into a safety zone.

In "John Rabe," German writer-director Florian Gallenberger naturally assigns him the lead role in this movement. He then constructed a lavishly mounted, essentially old-fashioned war melodrama around the events of 1937, bringing in moments of comedy, danger, intrigue, fury, horror and even a slight hint -- barely a whiff, really -- of romance on a couple of occasions.

Ulrich Tukur, one of Germany's leading actors, plays the hero in a calm, collected, thoughtful way. He ably grounds the melodrama with a quiet determination to make the best of whatever comes his way. In Tukur's portrayal, Rabe is one who, in Shakespeare's words, has greatness thrust upon him. He certainly never seeks it.

A representative of Siemens AG in China for nearly 30 years, Rabe maintains an attitude toward his Chinese workers that is benign but unenlightened as the movie gets underway. When the Japanese army levels Shanghai and rumbles toward the Chinese capital of Nanking, he even mutters that Japanese influence might be good for the Chinese.

He has no understanding of the nature of the Japanese menace or of the Nazi party he belongs to. But when evil rears its head, he cannot in good conscience betray the trust his workers have placed in him.

A German Jew and diplomat Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl) brings news about a safety zone for civilians that was successfully set up in Shanghai. Valerie Dupres (Anne Consigny), the French director of the Girl's College, wants a similar zone for Nanking and nominates Rabe as its chairman since, as a German and a Nazi, he can best shield civilians from his country's Japanese allies.

Skeptical American physician Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi) vehemently opposes "the Nazi," but Rabe is elected and he immediately nominates Dr. Wilson as his deputy. This uneasy alliance lets the movie keep track of all breaking developments from the ripped, mangled bodies that overwhelm an understaffed hospital to the reluctant negotiations the Japanese, bent on demonstrating the power of their war machine, must conduct with their German "ally."

Certainly one of the most startling images here is Rabe's brainstorm to use a giant Nazi flag to deflect Japanese bombers away from desperate civilians crammed into the Siemens grounds. The idea of anyone using a Nazi flag for protection from aggressors is certainly new to World War II movies!

Zhang Jingchu is cast as an elder student at the Girl's College, whose clandestine trips to her family outside the zone set up one major suspense sequence and whose presence gives the film some sex appeal. Teruyuki Kagawa as Prince Asaka, uncle of the Emperor, makes a serviceable villain, whose war crimes certainly are no exaggeration of the historical record.

Buscemi has one of his great roles here, lacing his doctor's exhausting chores with a cynicism and world weariness that bring a needed measure of wit to the movie. Consigny is all French passion and feminine determination, sometimes to the point where she jeopardizes the common good.

Bruhl's character feels like it was slipped in to deliver a German-Jewish viewpoint, which leaves him less involved in the developing storyline. The same goes for Dagmar Manzel as Rabe's loyal wife, a character designed to up the fictional ante -- as if the film really needed more emotionalism.

The 134-minute film jams in much information, incidents and characters without losing any entertainment value. And, fortunately, its heroism isn't pumped up or glorified. Sometimes, under extreme circumstances, people do the right thing.

Production: Hofmann & Voges Entertainment/EOS Entertainment/Majestic Filmsproduktion in association with ZDF/Pampa Prods./Huayi Brothers Media Corp./Lunaris Film und Fernsehproduktion
Cast: Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Bruhl, Steve Buscemi, Anne Consigny, Dagmar Manzel, Zhang Jingchu
Director-screenwriter: Florian Gallenberger
Based on the book by: John Rabe
Producers: Mischa Hofmann, Benjamin Herrman, Jan Mojito
Director of photography: Jurgen Jurges
Production designers: Juhua Tu, Xinram Tu, Marcus Wellendorf
Music: Laurent Petitgirard
Costume designer: Lisy Christi
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 134 minutes
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